Human Resources News & Insights

Handling the tricky questions in FMLA intermittent leave

It’s a given: Intermittent FMLA leave is a giant thorn in the side of HR people everywhere. But not all intermittent leave requests are equal. Here’s a look at some of the most common scenarios, and how to handle them.

The FMLA allows employers some flexibility in granting different kinds of intermittent leave. Employees are entitled to take it for serious health conditions, either their own or those of immediate family members.

The law also allows use of intermittent leave for child care after the birth or placement of an adopted child, but only if the employer agrees to it. It’s the company’s call.

It’s not always simple, however.

If the mother develops complications from childbirth, or the infant is born premature and suffers from health problems, the “serious health condition” qualifier would likely kick in. As always, it pays to know the medical details before making a decision.

Eligibility’s not automatic

Companies can successfully dispute bogus employee claims to FMLA eligibility.

Consider this real-life example:

A female employee in Maine said she suffered from a chronic condition that made it difficult to make it to work on time.

After she racked up a number of late arrivals – and refused an offer to work on another shift – she was fired.

She sued, saying her tardiness should have been considered intermittent leave. Her medical condition caused her latenesses, she claimed, so each instance should have counted as a block of FMLA leave.

Problem was, she’d never been out of work for medical treatment, or on account of a flare-up of her condition.

The only time it affected her was when it was time to go to work.

Sorry, the court said. Intermittent leave is granted when an employee needs to miss work for a specific period of time, such as a doctor’s appointment or when a condition suddenly becomes incapacitating.

 That wasn’t the case here, the judge said – and giving the employee FMLA protection would simply have given the woman a blanket excuse to break company rules.

Cite: Brown v. Eastern Maine Medical Center.

Designating leave retroactively

In order to maximize workers’ using up their allotted FMLA leave, employers can sometimes classify an absence retroactively.

Example: An employee’s out on two weeks of vacation, but she spends the second week in a hospital recovering from pneumonia.

Her employer doesn’t learn of the hospital stay until she returns to work. But she tells her supervisor about it, who then informs HR. Within two days, HR contacts the woman and says, “That week you were in the hospital should be covered by the FMLA. Here’s the paperwork.”

The key here is that the company acted quickly – within two days of being notified of the qualifying leave.

The tactic’s perfectly legal, and it could make a difference in the impact FMLA leave time could have on the firm’s overall operation.

It’s also an excellent example of the key role managers play in helping companies deal with the negative effects of FMLA.

Using employees’ PTO

First, a no-no: Employers should never tell workers they can’t take FMLA leave until they’ve used up all their vacation, sick and other paid time off (PTO).

Instead, you can require employees to use their accrued PTO concurrently with their intermittent leave time. Employers can also count workers’ comp or short-term disability leave as part of their FMLA time – but in that case, employees can’t be asked to use their accrued PTO.

The transfer option

Companies can temporarily transfer an employee on intermittent leave, to minimize the effect of that person’s absence on the overall operation.

The temporary position doesn’t need to be equivalent to the original job – but the pay and benefits must remain the same.

And, of course, the employee must be given his old job – or its equivalent – when the intermittent leave period’s over.

A few restrictions: The move can’t be made if the transfer “adversely affects” the individual. Example: The new position would lengthen or increase the cost of the employee’s commute.

Such transfers need to be handled in such a way as to avoid looking like the employer is trying to discourage the employee from taking intermittent leave – or worse yet, is being punished for having done so.

Cooperation, please

Although FMLA is certainly an employee-friendly statute, employers do have some rights when it comes to scheduling intermittent leave. For instance, employees are required to consult with their employers about setting up medical treatments on a schedule that minimizes impact on operations.

Of course, the arrangement has to be approved by the healthcare provider. But if an employee fails to consult with HR before scheduling treatment, the law allows employers to require the worker to go back to the provider and discuss alternate arrangements.

Sometimes, it’s as simple as taking an employee aside and saying, “I know you’ve got to go to physical therapy. But these 10 o’clock appointments are really affecting work flow. Could you see about scheduling them for after work hours?”

The firing question

Yes, companies can fire an employee who’s on intermittent FMLA leave. Despite the fears of many employers, FMLA doesn’t confer some kind of special dispensation for workers who exercise their leave rights.

Obviously, workers can’t be fired for taking leave. But employers can lay off, discipline and terminate those employees who violate company policies or perform poorly.

When an employee on FMLA leave is terminated, the DOL decrees that the burden’s on the employer to prove the worker would have been disciplined or terminated regardless of the leave request or usage.

Reductions in force

When an employer has a valid reason for reducing its workforce, the company can lay off an employee on FMLA leave – as long as the firm can prove the person would have been let go regardless of the leave.

So companies should be prepared not only to prove the business necessity of the move, but to show an objective plan for choosing which employees would be laid off.

Misconduct or poor performance

Employees on FMLA leave – of any type – are just as responsible for following performance and behavior rules as those not on leave.

But companies that fire an employee out on FMLA will be under increased pressure to prove that the decision was based on factors other than the worker’s absence.

And courts might well pose employers a key question: Why didn’t you fire this person before he/she took leave?

That answer’s not always difficult. Many times, employers don’t realize how badly an employee was doing until they see the mess he or she has left behind.

The good news: A number of courts have upheld employers’ rights to fire employees on FMLA leave – even when the employee’s problems were first discovered when the employee went off the job.

 

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  • SJ

    I have a very tricky question. I’m on intermittent FMLA for anxiety and panic disorder. I called out of work on my Friday using FMLA due to anxiety. Then on my weekend I came down with a head & chest cold. I then called out again on my Monday and said it was NOT FMLA due to the fact I was just sick and didn’t need to use FMLA. Now, my company has suspended me pending investigation and they keep asking me why I used FMLA on my Friday and then didn’t use it on my Monday? I have a feeling I’m going to be terminated for this, but I don’t understand what I did wrong. I was trying to do what I thought was right in not abusing the FMLA when I didn’t need it. Please help me understand what I did, and can I rightfully be terminated for this? Thank you!

  • Clare Hernandez

    I’m on FMLA until December 2014. Anxiety, depression, panic and I’ve been approved for years. I’ve been at my company for 25 years and they are making me so sick. I don’t want to quit. I’m not going to quit because my manager has absolutely no common sense, or compassion (she docked me two days when my Mom died). She is documenting me up the butt. She has been my manager for 10 years and I was perfect before her. Should I try to find an atty to help me. I think I deserve some sort of package – unemployment and two weeks for every year I’ve worked there. Big company, legal secretary and they’ve taken at least 10 years off my life.

  • Kira Marie Cobbs Lemaster

    I am on intermitten Fmla due to serious migraines and illness associated with my pregnancy and have been off quite a bit this month over it. I worry bc my manager hasn’t ever liked me and is kind of nasty when I call in to call off. I don’t want to loose my job before having this baby, but she has me worried that she’s looking for some way of doing just that. Am I safe as long as my absences are approved under my Fmla? And if a day isn’t covered by my Fmla is she able to use that against me if I’m not over the companies guidelines for call offs? I had used call offs for this condition before I was aware I could even file for fmla

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